Meriam "Mary" Marjory Murphy Johnson Covillaud (1831-1867) was a survivor of the Donner Party and one of the first women of European descent to settle in what would become the city of Marysville. The city of Marysville is named after her, as are Mary Covillaud Elementary School, Covillaud Street, and Covillaud Place, all in Marysville.

Born in Missouri to Mormon converts Jeremiah Burns Murphy and Levinah W. Jackson Murphy, Mary Murphy was only 14 years old when she traveled to California as part of the Donner Party in the winter of 1846-1847, with her widowed mother and her older sisters, Sarah and Harriet, as well as her four brothers, two brothers-in-law, two nieces, and a nephew. An 1879 History of Yuba County, California describes the Donner Party's travails:

At the present site of Reno, it was concluded to rest. Three or four days' time was lost. This was the fatal act. The storm clouds were already brewing upon the mountains, only a few miles distant. The ascent was ominous. Thick and thicker grew the clouds, outstripping in threatening battalions the now eager feet of the alarmed emigrants, until at Prosser creek, three miles below Truckee, October 28, 1846, a month earlier than usual, the storm set in, and they found themselves in six inches of newly-fallen snow. On the summit it was already from two to five feet deep. The party, in much confusion, finally reached Donner Lake in disordered fragments. Frequent and desperate attempts were made to cross the mountain tops, but at last, baffled and despairing, they returned to camp at the lake. The storm now descended in all its pitiless fury upon the ill-fated emigrants. Its dreadful import was well understood, as laden with omens of suffering and death. With slight interruptions, the storm continued for several days. The animals were literally buried alive and frozen in the drifts. Meat was hastily prepared from their carcasses, and cabins rudely built. One, the Schallenberger cabin, erected November, 1844, was already standing about a quarter of a mile below the lake. This the Breen family appropriated. The Murphys erected one three hundred yards from the lake, marked by a large stone twelve feet high. The Graves family built theirs near Donner creek, farther down the stream, the three forming the apexes of a triangle, and distant 150 yards or more. The Donner brothers, with their families, hastily constructed a brush shed in Alder Creek valley, six or seven miles from the lake. Their provisions were speedily consumed, and starvation, with all its grim attendant horrors, stared the poor emigrants in the face. . . .

On December 16, 1846, seventeen of the strongest members of the party—including Mary's two older sisters, her brother-in-law William McFadden Foster, her 13-year-old brother Lemuel, and her 10-year-old brother William—set out on snowshoes to look for help. Mary remained behind with her mother, the youngest children, and the weaker members of the party. Her brother William had no snowshoes. He returned the next day with an adult, "Dutch Charley" Burger, who also had no snowshoes; neither of them had been able to keep up with the snowshoe party. Burger made another attempt at setting out on his own on December 20, but returned to Donner Lake the same day and died of starvation nine days later.

Mary's 17-year-old brother Landrum was the oldest male in the Murphy family who remained behind after the Forlorn Hope snowshoe party departed. Because of this, he took over most of the wood-chopping and snow-shoveling duties for the Murphy family at that point. He died of starvation January 31, 1847. Mary and the other survivors remaining at Donner Lake were reduced to eating moccasins and old animal hides. The First Relief rescue team arrived February 19, 1847. One of the members of this rescue team, Daniel Rhoads, later described the team's arrival:

At sunset of the 16th day we crossed the Truckee Lake on the ice and came to the spot where we had been told we should find the emigrants. We looked all around but no living thing except ourselves was in sight and we thought that all must have perished. We raised a loud halloo and then we saw a woman emerge from a hole in the snow. As we approached her several others made their appearance in like manner, coming out of the snow. They were gaunt with famine and I never can forget the horrible, ghastly sight they presented. The first woman spoke in a hollow voice very much agitated and said "are you men from California or do you come from heaven?"
They had been without food except a few work oxen since the first fall of snow, about 3 weeks. They had gathered up the bones of the slaughtered cattle and boiled them to extract the grease and had roasted some of the hides which formed the roofs of their cabins. We gave them food very sparingly and retired for the night, having some one on guard until morning to keep close watch on our provisions to prevent the starving emigrants from eating them, which they would have done until they died of repletion.
When these emigrants had first been stopped by snow they had built small cabins using the skins of the slaughtered oxen for roofs. Storms nearly continuous had caused the snow to fall to the depth of 18 feet so that the tops of their cabins were far beneath the surface. When we arrived they were eating portions of the hides forming their roofs which hides being under the snow were in a putrid condition. The bodies of those who had perished were lying on top of the snow covered with quilts. When a person died an inclined plane was dug to the floor of the cabin and the body slid up to the surface, the inmates being too weak to lift the corpse out. So far the survivors had not been compelled to partake of human flesh. I remember seeing but 3 living men. Louis Keeseburg was lying on his back unable to rise. He, Patrick Breen and one other were the only ones left. Very few women or children had died up to this time.
The morning after our arrival John P. Rhoads and Tucker started for another camp distant 8 miles East, where were the Donner family, to distribute what provisions could be shared and to bring along such of the party as had sufficient strength to walk. They returned bringing four girls and two boys of the Donner family and some others.
The next morning we started on our return trip accompanied by 21 emigrants mostly women and children. John Rhoads carried a child in his arms which died the second night. On the third day an emigrant named John Denton, exhausted by starvation and totally snow-blind gave out. He tried to keep up a hopeful and cheerful appearance, but we knew he could not live much longer. We made a platform of saplings, built a fire on it, cut some boughs for him to sit upon and left him. This was imperatively necessary. The party who followed in our trail from California found his dead body a few days after we had left him, partially eaten by wolves.

Mary's infant niece, Catherine Pike, died the day after the First Relief team arrived. Mary herself was rescued by this team, as was her younger brother William. John Rhoads of the First Relief team actually carried two children on his back—the child who died, whose name was Ada Keseburg, and Mary's 3-year-old niece, Naomi Pike. Naomi survived the trip. But Mary learned that her younger brother Lemuel had died with the snowshoe team on December 27, 1846; she had lost both the siblings closest to her in age. In addition, Mary's mother, her youngest brother Simon, and her 2-year-old nephew, George Foster, were all too weak to travel with the rescue team and had to remain behind at Donner Lake. Simon was rescued by the Third Relief team in mid-March, when he was celebrating his ninth birthday. George had already died and was eaten shortly before the Third Relief team arrived. Mary's mother was still too weak to travel, and died soon after the Third Relief team left without her. Her body was also eaten by the few remaining survivors.

Soon after her arrival with her surviving siblings in what would later become Marysville, Mary married William Johnson, who owned Johnson's Ranch in what is now Wheatland—the very ranch where the snowshoe party her sisters had set out with had finally reached help. However, this marriage soon ended in divorce due to William Johnson's "extreme cruelty" (domestic violence) toward Mary. Mary then married Charles Julian Covillaud in 1848, and they had several children. (Her sisters Sarah and Harriet had already been married at the time of the Donner Party expedition, and Harriet remarried after arriving in California.)

Charles Covillaud had made money as a gold miner and in 1848, he bought half of his former employer Theodor Cordua's ranch in what was then called "Yubaville." After some discussion, Mary's two sisters' husbands, William McFadden Foster and Michael C. Nye, were persuaded to buy the other half of the ranch in 1849. Charles Covillaud soon bought this land from his brothers-in-law and reunited it as a single ranch. Later in 1849, Covillaud sold most of the ranch to José Manuel Ramirez, John Sampson, and Theodore Sicard.

Because the land on the west side of the Feather River had already been dubbed Yuba City (although it would not be incorporated as an official city until 1908), the name "Yubaville" seemed too similar to that, and an election was held to choose a new name for the city. Residents voted to name it after Mary, whose "kind ways and uniform gentleness of disposition endeared her to every one," according to her obituary (reprinted on She died at age 35, seven months after Charles Covillaud's death.


New Light on the Donner Party: The Murphy Family by Kristin Johnson History of Yuba County, California (Chapter 6) by Thompson & West, 1879 Donner Party Donner Party timeline